JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-CHAPMAN TRAINING ANNEX, Texas -- At the age of nine, my grandmother told me a story I have never been able to get over. She told me this story in frustration because of how I was acting while shopping in a grocery store. I was a rambunctious child and always wanted to touch everything and I constantly had questions. My grandmother was wonderful and always had love for me, but I could tell I was trying her patience that day.
She told me a story about when she was a year younger than me she was smacked in the face by a woman in a grocery store for talking too much. Being inquisitive, I could not understand what she was saying. Who was the person that smacked her? Where were her parents; my great grandma or grandpa?
I asked my grandmother and she further explained that she did not know the woman and she was smacked because she was translating English to Spanish for my great-grandmother. She said the woman yelled, “You speak English in this country or get out.”
I then asked in anger, “Why didn’t you or bisabuela do anything to that lady?” My grandma smiled and simply said nothing could be done back then.
I started off with this story to explain what a large portion of the Mexican population endured and still endures today. This incident was the reason my grandmother refused to teach any of her children Spanish. Also, she didn’t want them to have an accent that was perceived as “ignorant.”
I can attest to this because I have been told numerous times I do not sound Mexican. My mother told me plenty of stories of how she was treated in high school. My father was involved in a small race battle, which was common between whites and Mexicans at the time, which ended with him being stabbed and his cousin being shot. This was in the 1970s to give some context.
Then it was my turn to be reminded that my country had not come far enough. The first instance was a high school party I was invited to by a girl from another school. Two of my cousins and I were there a little over 10 minutes when I was faced with a shotgun. We were called a racial slur and told to get out.
I kindly apologized, we put our hands up and walked away. I wish I could say this was the only time it’s happened, and I wish it was the only time I could say I had to deal with racism; but it wasn’t. I was confronted with racism multiple times in the military, too.
I was selected for a deployment to Ecuador in 2007. I was excited and thought I was chosen for my skills as a mechanic. A few senior mechanics who were also going on the deployment later told me, “You’re going to be the translator for us.” I told them I do not speak Spanish very well and they responded with “That’s the only reason we put you on this trip.”
Again, I wish that was the only time I faced racism in the military, but sadly it wasn’t. After that incident, my grandmother’s story came into my mind. I then realized what she meant when she said, “You couldn’t do anything about it then.”
My heart sunk when I realized how little we have come as a culture. After that point, I told myself I would not stand for off-colored remarks; but the past has left me a little scarred. I was stuck with being “too brown” and “not Mexican enough.”
It hurts that my subconscious knows to keep my guard up when I’m around white people. It saddens me that one of the first thoughts I had when I saw my daughter for the first time was, “I’m glad she came out with more of her mother’s color.” Her mother is very light-complected.
I just want people to understand that my story is not unique. Your minority brothers and sisters in arms can most likely echo my story. If you spend some time to know their past you can better understand their current emotions during this turbulent time.
Pains of the past are passed on and knowing this will help you know your troops. Hopefully, one day I can reflect on my grandmother’s story as just that; a story of the past.
The military has shown me racism but it has also armed me with the tools and resiliency to overcome those transgressions. I want to echo the words of Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, “There is a better idea… the power of diversity… if you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect then you need to get out.”
I have hope in my heart and I can see the change happening. I know that I won’t stand for racism and I won’t ever standby and allow what happened to my grandmother to ever happen again.